Navigating Today’s Social Universe

A new Viacom study investigates how people are using the seven most common social media and messaging apps.

Creating photo albums, announcing that you’re engaged to be married, letting friends know you’re running late – just a few years ago, these were straightforward actions involving physical photographs, in-person conversations and landline telephones. But starting with Facebook in 2004, new methods of sharing and communication have emerged from the rapid rise of social media and messaging apps. Over the past decade, several apps have surfaced and now play a significant role in how we connect with each other.

To explore how people are using these platforms, Viacom Global Consumer Insights commissioned a nationally representative survey of 2,000 consumers ages 13-60 across the US and UK, as well as a 24-hour social media diary among 500 consumers. The project focused on seven apps: Facebook, texting/iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

So, what did the study find?

Facebook is an established must-have. Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp lead in growth. With 73% of respondents reporting that they use Facebook at least once a month, its reach far surpasses other apps (Text/iMessage 45%, Facebook Messenger 43%, Twitter 35%, Instagram 29%, WhatsApp 25% and Snapchat 14%). Snapchat currently stands out as the fastest-growing, with 39% of current users having just started using the app in the last year, followed by Instagram and WhatsApp (both 31%).

Social media apps are for lurking, while – unsurprisingly – messaging apps are for communicating. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter users primarily read and watch without necessarily engaging directly with others. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and text/iMessage are, predictably, tools for communicating. Interestingly, Snapchat is more of a communication app, but its users lurk almost as much as they communicate.

Users curate their networks carefully – and they’re most selective about social media apps, especially Snapchat. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter users follow an average of about 250 people. Snapchat networks are much smaller, averaging 90. Users interact with a mix of friends, celebrities and brands on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, and with mostly celebrities and brands on Twitter. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and text/iMessage are for friends and family only.

Some users build multiple profiles to control who has access to their digital lives. This tactic for keeping their networks selective happens across platforms but is most common on Instagram. On Instagram, 17% of people ages 13 to 24 claim to have more than one account – making them over three times more likely than people 25 to 60 to have such a set-up. Each successive profile a user has gets further from his or her real personality. So they may have a primary profile reflecting their true self for friends, a more polished secondary profile for acquaintances, and another profile used exclusively for work.

Each app plays a unique role in users’ lives – but the lines are starting to blur. Facebook, Twitter, texting/iMessage and WhatsApp are platforms for keeping up to date with others, while Instagram and Snapchat are more for self-expression and entertainment. When it comes to unique qualities, users see Facebook as “nosy,” Instagram as “fake” and Snapchat as “goofy/quirky.” However, as these apps have begun to copy and implement each other’s capabilities, they are starting to overlap in users’ minds. Consumers see both Facebook and Twitter as “full of drama,” and Instagram and Snapchat as “unique and innovative.” Based on these trends, current and future social media and messaging platforms will have to cement a truly unique position in the landscape in order to secure longevity in this rapidly changing and highly competitive space.